PLANT CITY — Scoreless tie. Bottom of the seventh. Two outs. Bases loaded.
Hundreds upon hundreds of screaming fans cram around the fence at Lakewood Ranch in a do-or-die Class 8A region final.
One of the best hitters in the state steps into the box with the count at three balls, two strikes.
Plant City sophomore Ashley Blessin, all 5 feet, 4 inches of her, stands on the mound.
If Blessin throws a ball. Season over. If Blessin gives up a hit. Season over. If a Raider teammate commits an error. Season over.
Blessin breathes deep and fires.
It's an inside curveball that the batter swings at and …
Strikeout. Season still alive.
"Ashley Blessin?" Plant City coach Ashley Bullion said. "She never gets rattled."
Before the game, it didn't bother Blessin that Lakewood Ranch was ranked No. 1 overall in the state and No. 8 in the country by MaxPreps. It also didn't bother her that Lakewood Ranch had a .361 team batting average, 43 total homers on the season, and averaged eight runs and 10 hits a game.
On the contrary.
"It excited me," said Blessin, who this year has thrown every game, compiling a 0.56 ERA with 226 strikeouts, but had never thrown against a team as tough as Lakewood Ranch. "I thought it was a great challenge. I couldn't wait to pitch against them."
Bullion says Blessin's teammates hear her and watch her and, with eac h command performance in the toughest situations, all the Raiders gain confidence.
That's why — after Plant City finally defeated Lakewood Ranch 1-0 in 11 innings with Blessin giving up only four hits and striking out 15 on more than 200 pitches — the Raiders believe they could beat just about anybody.
And now, heading to Vero Beach to take on Wellington (21-6) in Friday's Class 8A state semifinal, the Raiders, who have never reached a state softball semifinal in school history, are ready to make more noise.
Which still might surprise some folks, many of whom said the Raiders (22-2) didn't stand a prayer against Lakewood Ranch.
On the surface, the Raiders don't look overly intimidating in physical stature, and on paper the same holds true, hitting for a team average of .299 while scratching out an average of five runs a game.
Blessin, for that matter, doesn't look that intimidating when she pitches, barely getting her fastball to 60 mph.
But step onto the field against these relentless Raiders, and things suddenly get tremendously challenging.
Particularly when it comes to Blessin.
Blessin not only paints the corners with an inside curve, outside curve, changeup, screwball and a riser, but she hits her spots with uncanny, consistent accuracy.
On the sideline, her father, assistant coach Gary Blessin, charts the opponent's tendencies to each of his daughter's pitches. In between, he calls every pitch for her.
"I would say we work pretty well together," said Gary Blessin, who started catching Ash. ley when she was just 9 years old. "It's been a dream situation."
One that keeps going, no matter what.
"We're far from done with this," Ashley Blessin said. "We're ready to play these games. I can't wait."